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Lawmakers in Europe Want the UN to Debate a Parliamentary Assembly. When Will Governments Follow?

Andreas Bummel is Director of Democracy Without Borders and Coordinator of the Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly

BERLIN, Jul 20 2017 (IPS) - Earlier this month, the European Parliament adopted its annual recommendations on the European Union’s policy at the upcoming session of the United Nations General Assembly that begins in September.

Cedit: UN Photo

The document pointed out that the EU “should play a proactive part in building a United Nations that can contribute effectively to global solutions, peace and security, human rights, development, democracy and a rule-of-law-based international order.”

Among other things, the European Parliament called on EU governments to foster a debate “on the topic of establishing a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly with a view to increasing the democratic profile and internal democratic process of the organisation and to allow world civil society to be directly associated in the decision-making process.”

For more than twenty years the European Parliament has been pushing for a UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA). Six years ago it called on EU governments to promote its establishment.

The Council’s working group on the UN had a brief internal discussion at the time and concluded that the creation of a UNPA would imply a modification of the UN’s Charter which was considered unrealistic. It was also said that it would be a paradox for the UN to establish a UNPA since there are member states that do not have a democratically elected parliament. Finally, the point was made that a UNPA would entail high costs that the UN and governments would be unable to bear.

The Council did not engage with the parliament or anyone else pertaining these and other arguments. Its consideration of the issue was superficial. Ironically, it is easier for the UN to create a UNPA than to add just one single seat to the UN Security Council. Other than the Council seemed to believe, while the latter indeed requires an amendment of the Charter, the former clearly does not.

A UNPA can be created according to Article 22 which allows the General Assembly to establish subsidiary bodies as it deems necessary to fulfill its work. A UNPA could be seen as part of the assembly’s “revitalization”, a topic that has been pursued for long but did not yield much results so far.

Each year, Freedom House in Washington D.C. publishes its assessment of democracy in the world and today nearly two thirds of UN member states are considered to be “electoral democracies”. The foundation warns, however, that democracy is increasingly under threat by populist and nationalistic forces as well as authoritarian powers.

Proponents of a UNPA keep pointing out that giving parliamentarians a voice at the UN would help strengthening democracy especially in countries where it is still weak and under pressure. Opposition politicians certainly would benefit from a seat in a UNPA and the international exposure that would go along with it.

After all, it has been a key argument that if the UN’s promotion of democracy is to be credible, the world organization itself needs to democratize as well. The establishment of a UNPA could also be understood as a response to Sustainable Development Goal 16. SDG 16 targets include the development of “effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels” and ensuring “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.” Why should the UN, of all things, be excluded from this?

A UN parliamentary body could be a useful complement to the High-Level Political Forum on sustainable development in order to review the implementation of the SDGs.

At the beginning, a UNPA need not be a monumental investment. It depends on the specifics. So far, neither the Council of the EU or anyone else has come up with a thorough calculation. How can you argue that the costs would be too high if you never calculated them in the first place?

Under US President Donald Trump multilateralism and UN funding are under threat. This should be a wake-up call. To a large degree, a UNPA would be educational. It would bring the UN closer to lawmakers in the capitals and could help strengthen budgetary support of UN member states. In the long run, strengthening the UN’s democratic profile could turn out to be a good investment.

When she was an Italian deputy, the EU’s High Representative on Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, endorsed a UNPA and last year she confirmed that she still believes that it “could be a very useful tool.”

For a long time, EU governments have been ignoring the European Parliament’s endorsement of a UNPA. Will it be different this time?

Although a debate on this topic is not unrealistic, it is premature to expect that there will be a formal push in the upcoming session of the UN General Assembly. Most UN member states, including those from the EU, never looked into the concept of a UNPA in a serious way and will have to do their homework first.

Support like it was expressed by Malta’s foreign minister George Vella, who was succeeded last month, or by the cabinet of Italy’s foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni, who is now Italy’s Prime Minister, was the exception.

In May an informal meeting in New York hosted by the Canadian UN mission in collaboration with the international Campaign for a UNPA brought together representatives of 12 governments for a briefing on the proposal. This was a sign of growing interest.

More such informal meetings seem to be the most likely way forward for the time being. In the process, several EU governments – and other UN member states – may declare their support in one way or another which eventually could bring it on the EU’s and the UN’s agenda.

In particular, it will be interesting to see what position the new French government under President Emmanuel Macron will take.

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